Skopje, Macedonia
Personal Reflections

The following are two posts I wrote after my departure from Skopje [to friends and colleagues] and some comments based on my experience in Skopje and my reading that I posted to a "listserv". I will edit the overlaps when I have more time.

~ exit from skopje ~ IMHO ~ march 98 page & news links ~ home ~

posted on fodor's travel forum - March 28, 1999

I have just returned from Skopje, Macedonia where I spent a week with my former student and her family. The hospitality was, of course, wonderful. But looming over us was the impending NATO bombing of Serbia. I will post later about my "tourist"experiences in Skopje, but now I want to briefly share my feelings and experiences. I apologize that this isn't a "light" post, but travel can sometimes take a different direction.

I was working at a news agency in downtown Skopje the morning before the NATO bombing began. The rumors were legion. We heard Kofi Anan was flying to Belgrade. We heard that a British plane had taken off from Italy. We heard that the Skopje airport was still open. Or that it was closing. It was only the last rumor that was true. After work the women from the office took me out for a drink. That night NATO started bombing. [PLEASE note that I am not taking a position here. I'm not sure anything anyone does or doesn't do will resolve the Kosovo situation. Every option hurts someone. And historical memory runs deep. I *am*, of course VERY concerned about the effect on Macedonia.]

I watched the first night of the bombing in Skopje. There was CNN "feed" as well as Macedonian coverage. Almost everyone in Skopje has relatives in Belgrade. I will tell you this: watching tv coverage of bombing occuring less than 50 miles from you [The Kosovo border is about 7 miles from Skopje; Prishtina is 30-40 miles.] is a heck of a lot less abstract than watching the US bomb Iraq from the distance of the US. Surprisingly I don't think I was scared. I was sad and concerned. I *was* worried about how I was going to get back to Chicago. I was supposed to fly out to Zurich on the morning of the 25th. That evening the airport was closed. We considered several options: car to Sofia, bus to the Greek border, then my former student remembered the train that runs from Budapest to Thessaloniki. The question is would it run as it has to pass through Serbia to get to Skopje. We called at 3:30am and the answer was yes! I have NO idea how that train made it through Serbia that night. [I think it was the last to do so.]

At 5am I was on a train to Greece. The rest of the day was long. The scenery in Southern Macedonia was spectacular. The only *event* was the Greek police taking about 8 of us off the train at Idomeni to check our passports. It took them a while to decide that a short middle-aged woman from Chicago was neither a drug runner or a terrorist [and they obviously didn't like my 3 Macedonian visas much], but in the end we got back on the train and proceeded to Thessaloniki. [which is a beautiful city... next time!]

At the Thessaloniki airport Crossair [Swissair's regional carrier] and Austrian Airlines took care of me *exquisitely*. Both went far beyond what was was required. They have my loyalty now. I had lunch with one of the OSCE verifiers who had been in Kosovo and got his perspective. [He was on the way home to Canada for a 10 day vacation and believed that he would be back in Kosovo after that. I am less convinced of that.] I arrived in Zurich via Vienna, got the last room at the Airport Hilton. Took a shower [needed, trust me...] and slept for the first time in a while before my flight home on the 26th.

I have talked on the phone and emailed my "family." The day and night of the 26th were dicey with the riots at the US embassy and the Alexander Palace Hotel, but the police have gotten organized and things are a lot more peaceful now. The US State Dept. issued a travel warning for Macedonia on the 26th.

posted at lambdaMOO - April 5, 1999

On the morning of March 24th I was working in The Macedonian Information Center in Skopje, Macedonia, editing translations of the news from the Skopje newspapers. [I was spending my spring break there, continuing the work I did for 2 weeks last spring.] The rumors were flying fast and furious. [The Macedonian Reuters correspondent works at MIC so we had first hand reports of what was happening-although rumor was the main event.] Amid the confusion and fear I had a conversation with the agency's financial officer, a well-educated and thoughtful person. He asked why NATO was interfering in an internal matter, a question calling for a moral argument, but he also asked why the US was intervening here, but not in Africa and elsewhere where the killing and expulsion of people involved many more people than in Kosovo. I don't take this as an argument against intervening in Kosovo [he obviously did], but a question to ask ourselves regarding OUR responses to human suffering and misery in general. I don't think the answer makes us look "good".

That evening I was watching the news reports of the first night of the NATO bombing, both with CNN "feed" and Macedonian TV. [I speak some Macedonian so I could follow.]

At 5am the next day I was on a train to Greece [the last one] in a car much like the ones we see in the news reports full of the Kosovo refugees. [The airport had shut down the previous evening] I have no idea HOW that train got through Serbia [from Budapest] that night, and I am fortunate that it did. Now I was NEVER in danger. The Greek border guards were a pain, both on the train and at the Thessaloniki airport, but it was only a long day.

I've read a lot about the situation from many perspectives. What follows is my opinion based on my experience and my reading.

I think NATO/US bombed out of frustration that they couldn't outwit Milosevic. He is a wily guy. He also only has to consult himself rather than a committee when he wants to act. We look like stupid lumbering idiots next to his ability to quickly change the ground rules.

Okay -- the way we started the bombing gave Milosevic all the time he needed to force the Kosovar Albanians out of Kosovo. At the Thessaloniki Airport I had lunch with one of the OSCE "verifiers" who had pulled out of Kosovo while I was in Skopje. He thought that Milosevic would "cave" once we showed him what we could do. The point that the NATO/US missed is that Serbia isn't Bosnia. Serbia is the homeland. The signs were clear and they were ignored.

The progression of the bombing was also problematic. We spent time on taking out the air defenses to minimize "losses". This gave Milosevic time to start his expulsion and to protect some of his control and command stuff. I don't think we [NATO etc...] CAUSED the expulsion. But we certainly accelerated it and gave Milosevic the time and space to get it well underway. I have this image of a group of NATO people saying "Now what can we do that will bring about the OPPOSITE of our aims." We bombed Serbia to protect the Kosovars and to stabilize the region. What we have done is accelerated the "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo and destabilized Macedonia, a weak, but key country in the region. We have destabilized Macedonia in two ways. 1. We have pressured them to oppose their fellow slavs in Serbia. Macedonia's economy is closely linked to Serbia's. The previous sanctions were damaging. The current situation is devastating. Yugoslavia was once one country. Everyone I know in Skopje has family in Belgrade. 2. Macedonia already has a 25-30% Albanian minority. They cannot absorb more Albanian refugees without some real internal problems. There is much more I could say about Macedonia. What I have said is simply to provide some background for my belief that the effect of our actions has been the precise opposite from what we intended.

The central problem now is aid for the refugees. PLEASE - those of you with a few extra $$ or francs or whatever... send them to the relief agency of your choice.